My Problems with Educational Technology Hype

Anyone who knows me (or at least follows me online) knows that I am not a Luddite.  On the contrary, I’m an early adopter, particularly regarding software and Web services.  I love to use the newest and shiniest tech.  This is, at least, until I understand it better.  If I can’t figure out a use-case for my personal uses, that new thing will join the digital trash heap quickly.  As a teacher, however, the use-case has to be very strong for me to even consider using a tech with my classes.  I’ve been burned too many times over the years by my own irrational exuberance only to find the tech (or more importantly, my methods) fail miserably.

As I continue to work on tempering my own use of tech in my classes, I see what looks like a myopic rush save money via educational technology.  I’m not against saving money, mind you.  I’m rather fiscally conservative. However, I am against doing anything in an uncritical way as I believe is happening how.

What got me thinking about this was a post by TechCrunch (Anticipating a Blended Classroom Boom Led by Education Startups).  This article discusses companies that may contribute to wonderful learning environments, these kinds of systems can help with automated tracking and personalized content recommendations for students.  This can, in turn, be used by teachers to then customize instructional interventions for individual students (or more likely whole classes).  The article does a good job emphasizing the collaborative role of the technologies and educators.  However, the “Boom” got me thinking about the baser realities that are likely to emerge in this space.

Tony Bates must by on a similar wave length as he posted on this yesterday (My summer paranoia: computers will replace teachers in higher education).  He detailed a whole host of problems with the desire to automatize education.  I agree with much of what he said. My responses to his end-of-post questions are below.

1. Anyone else share my paranoia? (about computers replacing computers – anything else, see a doctor) : Shared, but I wouldn’t call it paranoia, necessarily. I can’t tell you its a bad thing until I see it implemented. Of course, computers replacing human teachers is rather unlikely. However, computers reducing the number of teachers is probably on the horizon.

2. Do you believe we should replace teachers (or instructors) with computers? What are your reasons? : As above, replacing teachers is an impossibility for much of what we currently think of as education (change the definition and I’ll change my answer). However, reducing the number of teachers is possibility. Off-loading rote learning activities and basic assessment, providing useful learning objects that address some of the needs of individual students, and reducing the time that students meet with teachers can enable teachers to work with more students in the same amount of time (ideally). Again, though, it’s all in the implementation. I haven’t seen/heard of a good one yet.

3. Can online learning improve productivity in post-secondary education without getting rid of most instructors? : It can, but it won’t. The way to move anything forward in higher ed is to show that it can save money (whether it really will or not) and not that it is a more effective educational approach.

I also share his concern over MOOCs and automated marking:

Let’s start with xMOOCs and automated marking and peer review to get around the awkward point that one instructor cannot provide adequate feedback to thousands of students. No problem: a combination of big data collection and analysis and multiple-choice testing will solve most problems, and the ones that it won’t solve will be solved by dumb students marking less dumb students.

Though, I might have stated it a little differently than ” dumb students marking less dumb students.” I’d hope that this was a bit of humor and not him saying that students (or their teachers) can’t learn from one another.

The movement to crowdsource and open education is one that is rooted in the belief that there is a great amount of knowledge and power in the crowd and a great amount of value in opening education for everyone (able to afford a computer and Internet access).  I truly belief in this as well.  I think that many of those promoting MOOCs believe this as well.  However, I cannot believe that course offerings by companies like Coursera can best a course that features healthy interaction with a knowledgeable other (teacher or peer), which is a whole lot less likely in a MOOC.  Having participated in a couple, I find them little different than course offerings I had 10 years ago that gave me a reading, required me to post a response on a discussion forum, and then required me to respond to a peer.  There is value in the approach, but when you take a knowledgeable other out of the equation, it’s little more than mental masturbation.

2 thoughts on “My Problems with Educational Technology Hype”

  1. I don’t see any mention of what subject you teach. Can computers be more useful in a math course than in an English literature course? Maybe tablets are only useful as book readers in literature classes whereas they can graph functions in a math class and show the student how changing values alters the graph and do it in real time rather than the slow and tedious drawing on graph paper that I did in school.

    Here is a graphing calculator for Android.

    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.herbertlaw&feature=search_result#?t=W251bGwsMSwxLDEsImNvbS5oZXJiZXJ0bGF3Il0.

    Part of the problem has been the technology was getting more powerful relative to the application and not reached a diminishing returns point. But now a Nexus 7 tablet is as powerful as a desktop 5 years ago and more processing power will not increase the educational capability. It is now all about software.

    http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/500/421

    But that shows the real problem back in 1987. A computer can give a student 100% of its “attention” 100% of the time. A teacher in a classroom cannot do that.

  2. Thanks for commenting. I’m in an English Education department in Korea, which means English language instruction, rather than English lit as in the US. I teach teaching methods and writing courses.

    I think technology (both hardware and software) can be useful in all content areas (and I really do mean all). However, it has a unique role in each context. I wouldn’t say that it is less important in math than literature. In a literature class, you are likely doing literary criticism (lit classes are primarily gears towards high school and university). For this, a tablet can provide students not only with the text, but with annotations regarding social context at the time of writing, notes on the author’s life, information about themes that intersect the author’s writings, and so forth. These can be quite valuable for learners. I certainly wish I had access that kind of information in a nice little app.

    At this point, there’s no solid evidence to show that computer hardware as any lasting effect on learning. By hardware, I mean both the speed of processing and data access (network) and peripherals. Software is the key because this is where methods come into play. It’s always been about software as far as education is concerned. Methods beat tech every time.

    However, my post wasn’t about what tech can/can’t do, it was about the recent trends toward open education that are starting to be subverted by those who see profit. This worries me because of the very reason you suggested above. This focus is too much on on access to information (which is little better than a book) and not enough on methods.

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